Great Classics | Page 55 | Newberry

Great Classics

Over the years, I have gotten over these things. I no longer froth at the mouth when someone says they’re bringing over five boxes of books and brings me five boxes of magazines. I have given up glaring when someone says “albums and CDs.” (Most CDs are albums: that is, collections of individual recordings.) I don’t cringe when somebody tells me About their really old LPs, “the ones that play at 78”. (LPs play at 33 1/3 RPM, although some records which play at 33 are not LPs, but EPs.) And I gave up long ago trying to get people to say “indices” instead of “indexes”. (Oh, and “concerti” for “concertos” is out, too. We must move with the times.)

So it is not with any sense of irritation that I am going to give you a quick field guide to certain large sets of books. People are always telling me they’re bringing over “our set of the Great Books” and delivering instead boxes full of the Harvard Classics. I just thought you’d like to know.

(Oh, and to the folks who brought me a “complete set of the Great Books except for volume 23”, there is, properly speaking, no “except for” allowed in the phrase “complete set”. What you had was a “nearly complete set” or an “almost complete set” or even “a lot of numbered books”.)

The Harvard Classics came first. Charles Eliot, President of Harvard, had made some rash comment about how reading fifteen minutes a day from the classics of Western Literature would give one a good education. A publisher challenged him to come up with a list, and in 1909, the 51-volume set of Harvard Classics first appeared. (The publisher was P.F. Collier, which LOVED to produce big sets of books.) This set was around for years and years, and has appeared in a variety of different bindings, some quite lovely, some quite cheap. Many, many thousands of sets were sold, and if you have an attic, you probably have a set. The set is out of print, but one of those Print-On-Demand companies I was whining about this week will make you one for the right price.

The Harvard Classics are sometimes referred to as the Five Foot Shelf, from another of Dr. Eliot’s remarks about the real essentials of Western writing fitting on a shelf that long. Wikipedia tells me he originally said “three foot shelf” but does not go into detail about why he changed his mind.

The Great Books of the Western World is a Chicago project, put together by University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins and Chicago philosopher (and eventual Newberry Book Fair donor) Mortimer Adler in 1952. The Encyclopaedia Britannica picked it up and sold it the same way to sold encyclopedias and eventually sold many, many thousands of copies. It came in 54 volumes of shiny, shiny demi-leather, rather like the Britannica. That edition is out of print because in 1990, Adler decided it could be done better, and produced a 60-volume set, dropping Tristram Shandy and putting in The Great Gatsby, among other moves. In either case, he had more space than Dr. Eliot (bigger volumes, thinner paper, no remarks about the length of the shelf) and crammed in more stuff. In his set you have to go through to volume 16 before you get out of ancient Greece and Rome.

There are plenty of arguments on all sides as to which set is better, and whether either set is really useful. The discussions of why this author was in or that book was out will go on forever. (Do you need ALL of Shakespeare, as in Great Books, or just four of the plays, as in Harvard Classics? Do you want Robert Burns (Harvard Classics) or not (Great Books)?

Just to make life difficult, there is also the Harvard Shelf of Fiction, which runs to another 20 volumes, giving Dr. Eliot 71 to Mortimer Adler’s (revised) 60. Still, the Great Books are a Chicago product, so if you prefer your Sox White rather than Red, that would be the way to go.


You probably know of a volume by one Alex Beam titled "A Great Idea at the Time," which surveys the creation, life and influence of the Great Books series. I hadn't realized it at the time -- not knowingly having heard of the Great Books series -- but a course I took, required of all liberal arts sophomores in the late 50s, was a derivative of the Great Books. At my school it was called "Western Civilization" and was almost universally dreaded. Now however, I think back on it fondly as one of the 3 most valuable courses I took as an undergraduate and graduate student.

Add new comment